Fly Fishing Books (Part I)
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
I love books. Who isn't a sucker for a good book? I am particularly a total sucker for good books about fly fishing and fly tying. I have gotten better about buying fewer of them as my book shelves have swelled. That new technology - message boards, websites/blogs, video services (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) - has not driven books to extinction tells us about how information in books is different than how information is conveyed online and in videos.
Books are rather personal. We each have our own favorites. Some books really resonate with me while others I simply can not get into. I can devour books that speak to me and I have more than a few unread - or partially read - books on my shelves (or Kindle) as well. Certainly some of my choices are a bit dated. In part because they are classics. In part because they were what I was reading at that time I was really learning to fish, I was reading a lot more fishing books, and my mind was a blank slate. Someone that learned to fly fish before me or after me likely has some different books on their list based on that timing.
I'll give links to books from the authors or publisher's pages, when possible. I provide a link to each book that I think it useful to help you learn more about each book. I make no money on Amazon or other affiliate links. I ended up breaking this into two posts as there was more there than is probably digested in a single post. (skip to part II)
Books for the Beginning Angler and Tyer
A great number of fly fishing and fly tying books are aimed at those just entering the sport. I have probably not purchased a book in this category in some time so my choices will be a bit dated and maybe a little uniformed in the case of those books I do not own and probably have not read.
Basic / Introductory Fly Fishing Books - I have but a couple today having never bought that many and having passed some of them on to others. I have a Charles Jardine book simply called, "Fly Fishing" and a similarly named "A Trailside Guide". Neither are going to make you a great angler but they are a good place to get started as is the Orvis guide, I am sure. I have heard / read plenty about Kirk Deeter's "The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing" but I can not say I am familiar with it beyond the favorable reviews.
Basic / Introductory Fly Tying Books - I'm sure these are quite dated but Skip Morris wrote books that were clear, concise, and did a really good job of writing about different materials and what the characteristics the tyer is looking for in particular applications. Today, Charlie Craven seems to fill that role very well.
Dave Whitlock's Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods to me is simply the best, most informative book for the beginning angler. Mr. Whitlock's book covers all the bases and there is a lot there for the intermediate and advanced angler but to me it is the one that moves an angler through the beginner's stage. There have been books that have done similar things since Mr. Whitlock's guide but as far as I am concerned none have threaded the needle as well. It is informative but not overloaded with information. It is a mix of fishing and fly tying and with his great illustrations. It is my, "if I could only have one book about fly fishing" book.
Books that will Help You Advance in Skills
I did not really know what to call this group but it is basically the books not written for beginners. Gary Borger's Presentation would be the classic example of a book that is written for someone that has been fishing for at least a few years. There had been a number of fly casting books by many of the names those my age and older would recognize - Lefty Kreh, Joan Wulff, Ed Jaworski, and Jason Borger, among others. I'll argue to whomever will listen - or read in this case - casting is probably better done through video and there is a ton of good stuff out there. For those that fish "technical water" (whatever the hell that means), my favorite video is from New Zealand, Casts that Catch Fish (some of their videos can be found online).
The last decade or so has seen a proliferation of specialized fly fishing books - books specific to techniques. There have been no shortage of books about nymph fishing - many related to "Euro nymphing" - and streamer fishing. For years, it seemed the Borger's Nymphing: A Basic Guide to Identifying, Tying, and Fishing Artificial Nymphs was one of the few books on the topic and it certainly got a little dated (though still useful). I have "Dynamic Nymphing" and it gets great reviews but I do not love it. Similarly, there are a growing number of streamer-specific books. Most notable seem to be George Daniel's Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers and Linsenman and Galloup's Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout: New Techniques, Tactics, and Patterns or the newer Streamers II which I have not seen. My favorite streamer book is a saltwater book, Pop Fleyes: Bob Popovics's Approach to Saltwater Fly Design.
Being a spring creek angler, a number of my specialized books are about how to catch trout in tough to catch situations. Swisher and Richards' Selective Trout has gone through a number of reprints and is sort of the classic in the genre. Matt Supinski's Selectivity: The Theory & Method of Fly Fishing for Fussy Trout, Salmon, & Steelhead obviously covers more ground than just spring creek trout but it is worth a read. But my two favorite books on the topic and one I continue to pull off the shelf and read a passage here and again are Mike Lawson's Spring Creeks and John Shewey's Mastering the Spring Creeks. They are both dated but there really has not been anything better published since. More about Midwest and Wisconsin specific books will be in part II.
My Personal Favorites
If I were to be stranded on a desert island and could only have one fly fishing book it would be Datus Proper's "What the Trout Said". It is a book that just hit all the right spots for me. The author takes a semi-scientific look at why trout eat our flies - and what they are looking for - and does it in an entertaining manner. It is clearly evident that Proper was a fan, a protege, of Vince Marinaro and his books In the Ring of the Rise and A Modern Dry Fly Code, both most excellent books. Books about dry flies just seem so much sexier those about nymphs and streamers. None of these books would probably be great for surviving on a desert island but they both make me happy.
I like "pretty" books and to me, these are largely fly tying books. My three choices here are about fly styles that I rarely, if ever, tie but I have the books because they have great photos and information - and they're beautiful. John Shewey's Spey Flies and Dee Flies: Their History & Construction, the Hillard's book, Carrie G. Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies, and Poul Jorgensen's Salmon Flies are each informative but above all else, they are simply gorgeous books. I am sure there are other great selections, these are my three choices.
A number of books are not the "how to" fly fishing books but tell stories around the sport. The best known short story is certainly Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through it, thanks to that movie you might have heard about. My two personal favorites are Nick Lyon's Spring Creek - mostly, but not entirely a fishing book that is just written differently - and Harry Middleton's The Earth Is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Flyfishing, Trout & Old Men. A more recent read that had gained a ton of publicity is "The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century" which is a captivating read. There are other great ones - The Longest Silence, Hemmingway's Big Two-Hearted River stories, The River Why - that would make my slightly longer list. John Gierach's books were certainly a big part of my early reading but for whatever reasons, I've not bought or read one of his more recent (last dozen years or so) books.
Lastly, in the fly tying realm, I highlight a number of beautiful books above in my favorites. If I were to only have one fly tying book, it would - without question - be Leeson and Schollmeyer's The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference To Techniques and Dressing Styles. The Leeson and Schollmeyer book really is "one stop shopping" and I'm sure there might be a few techniques not in it but I guarantee that covers 99.9% of what most tyers will ever do. I have more than a couple of other tying books - specific to tying materials like foam and CDC, or Oliver Edward's very cool - but semi-practical - Flytyer's Masterclass which are more realistic flies largely designed for his UK waters. They are interesting to look at but too "futzy" for my tastes. "Pattern books" - like Fly Pattern Encyclopedia: Federation of Fly Fishers - seem to have fallen out of favor but it is the one place where I think books really outshine what can be done effectively online. I am not going to cover history in these reviews since I do not have many books in this area but Ian Whitelaw's History of Fly Fishing in Fifty Flies is well worth the read.
Books about what Fish Eat
As stated above, Dave Whitlock's Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods, is the must have book, in my mind. Eventually, many of us move beyond Mr. Whitlock's introductory guide and move to books that dig more deeply into insects and their hatches and more taxa specific books.
Books about "Bugs" - There are a number of great choices here and I've bought probably too many of them. Dave Hughes' Handbook Of Hatches: Introductory Guide to the Foods Trout Eat & the Most Effective Flies to Match Them, Paul Weamer's The Bug Book: A Fly Fisher's Guide to Trout Stream Insects, and Hafele and Roederer's An Angler's Guide to Aquatic Insects and Their Imitations for All North America are the ones I have on my shelf (in addition to a few others). The taxonomy has certainly changed for many of these species but the information in the books is still important. I do not have a copy of MacCafferty's Aquatic Entomology: The Fisherman's And Ecologist's Illustrated Guide To Insects And Their Relatives but maybe some day I will find a reasonably priced copy. If you are really a "bug geek", Merritt and Cummins (and now Berg) Introduction to Aquatic Insects in North America has long been the ID book for research labs. More specific books exist for specific taxa.
Taxa specific books - Mayflies and Caddisflies are the two major groups most anglers, at least those of us in the East, tend to see and thus know. The book choices here are rather simple - maybe because there are not a ton of choices - but also because these books are the classics. While there are other books about caddisflies, Gary LaFontaine's Caddisflies is simply a classic not just because it has a ton of great information about caddiflies but it contains so many of Mr. LaFontaine's ideas about fly fishing. He was a guy that was well ahead of his time. Caucci and Nastasi's book, Hatches II: A Complete Guide to the Hatches of North American Trout Streams, is not just about mayflies but that is the part the book is best known for. There are other books, there are newer books, but there are also reasons that these books are classics.
Non-Insect Prey - For freshwater anglers, Dave Whitlock's previously mentioned Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods is probably the most complete treatment of freshwater aquatic prey. Some of the smallmouth books (more in part II) seem to do a better job of digging into non-invertebrate prey than the trout-centric books. Saltwater anglers, at least those in the Atlantic, have a couple of great option in Dr. Aaron Adams books Fisherman's Coast and Fly Fisherman's Guide to Saltwater Prey: How to Match Coastal Prey Fish & Invertebrates with the Fly Patterns That Imitate Them are great guides to what saltwater fishes eat and how to imitate their prey items. I was introduced to these books through my great uncle, George Close (for more, read the Mangrove Muddler post) who knew Dr. Adams whom he met when they wintered in Florida. Streamer books like George Daniel's Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers and Linsenman and Galloup's Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout: New Techniques, Tactics, and Patterns (and I assume Galloup's "Streamers II") approach Dr. Adams book but are much more about how to tie and fish the flies and less about the prey items themselves. Nothing wrong with that approach but for the category, they are "square pegs".
Look for part II where I'll dig deeper into Midwest and Wisconsin books, books about trout and species other than trout, and books that come from a more scientific point of view.
The lists of Others
Hatch Magazine - Fly Fishing Books Everyone Should Read
Heavy.com - 25 Best Fly Fishing Books
The Wading List - The 9 Best Fly Fishing Books
Fly Fishing Entomology - Recommended Books